OLDSMAR — Standing near the winner's circle late Saturday afternoon at Tampa Bay Downs, Derby Lane kennel owner Hans Limmer echoed what other late-arriving fans were saying.
"I can't believe people are still coming," he said.
With Verrazano and Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez on display, the Festival Day crowd of 10,476 wanted to see a big victory from a big Kentucky Derby hopeful. They weren't disappointed.
Verrazano, the undefeated 3-year-old colt from the high-octane barn of trainer Todd Pletcher, had plenty of gas in his tank after a workmanlike three-length win in the Grade II $350,000 Tampa Bay Derby.
The son of More Than Ready collected a $210,000 paycheck, but more important, he got 50 points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series and a probable starting berth in the first Triple Crown race, May 4 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.
"It's great to come here and get the 50 points," Pletcher said. "Everybody can take a little bit of a deep breath and see what happens next time."
Verrazano, ridden by Velazquez, stayed close early to Sam F. Davis winner Falling Sky, who set the pace through a quarter-mile of 23.40 seconds. Verrazano took command after that. The Kentucky-bred cruised into the lead with a half-mile clocking of 47.69, and he was never again challenged as the heavy favorite ($2.80 to win).
Winning time for 1�th miles was 1 minute, 43.96 seconds.
Java's War, a 32-1 shot, finished second under jockey Willie Martinez, 4¼ lengths in front of Falling Sky. Dynamic Sky was fourth.
The top four finishers received Kentucky Derby qualifying points on a sliding scale of 50-20-10-5.
"I didn't want to be caught up in head-to-head into the backstretch," Velazquez said.
"I took (Verrazano) back a little bit and then got away from (Falling Sky). I gave (Verrazano) a little break on the backstretch, and at the three-eighths pole, I let him do his own thing."
It was Pletcher's second Tampa Bay Derby win. The first was with Limehouse in 2004.
"We didn't want to be second (Saturday)," said Pletcher, whose 12 Derby starters have finished second six times.
Pletcher said the Wood Memorial on April 6 at Aqueduct in Jamaica, N.Y., is "most likely" the next race for Verrazano, who improved his record to 3-0 with his first stakes victory for owners Let's Go Stable, Susan Magnier, Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor.
"We learned he can travel and handle two turns," Pletcher said. "(Tampa Bay Downs) is a little more sandy than any surface he has ever been on. All the things that we worried about coming in, he seemed to check off all those boxes."
Other stakes winners on the card were Old Tune ($5) in the Grade III $150,000 Hillsborough Stakes and Manuka Honey ($4) in the $100,000 Suncoast Stakes. All-source handle on the 12-race program was $10,291,828.